System thinking series: What is sustainability?

I had an encounter on Twitter the other day that woke me up to my use of words in conversation that some would consider jargon. I’m new to doing the tweets, and the 140 character limit strangles me somewhat. In this case, he was talking about the austerity in Greece. I commented that his solution for the problem in Greece — e.g. trickle-down economics spawned through tax breaks to lure the wealthy back to the country — was not sustainable. I talked about economic cycles and I talked about feedback loops and oscillations and he called me a clown, essentially, and muted me.

While I feel very strongly that my opinion of his solution is correct, I do feel kind of bad that I got jargony with him without ever taking the chance to explain what I meant by “sustainable,” and “feedback loops,” and “oscillations.” So, to rectify that, I’m going to take a few chunks of vertical pixel space to define these terms as I use them, because — let’s face it — I’m going to use them again.

To that end, today’s entry will be about sustainability.

Sustainability

It’s a simple word, to be honest, for which most people understand the meaning, but it’s the way in which it is used in reference to economics when it becomes new or unfamiliar. It does not show up in the lexicon of typical economic discussions regarding minimum wage, inflation, free-market, etc. Where it does show up is when systems-thinkers talk about the economy. Systems-thinking gives a perspective that takes into account not just cause and effect to, but that looks at causal loops, accounts for mitigating issues, and models a system to try and determine where to best apply a solution — e.g. find “Leverage” — that has the best possible outcome.

This definition of a sustainable society is the one I’m thinking of when I speak of sustainability: “A sustainable society is one that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'” (2012, Meadows). In other words, if a decision we make about the economy compromises future generations’ needs, it’s not a sustainable decision. If building more factories requires more resources that will deplete those same resources for the future, should we build? If drilling for oil in the arctic could further deplete oil reserves and cause pollution, should we drill?

System thinking says that the questions of whether to build or whether to drill are not adequately answered by looking at immediate needs, but by looking at the impact of the decisions on the future. This is the idea that you think seven generations ahead when you make decisions like this. In this way, economics from a systems perspective looks different than from a more standard perspective.

Most pointedly, standard economics systems all deal with a central issue of prosperity. Either prosperity for the individual, or prosperity for the state. Prosperity is either achieved through unlimited growth and earnings potential (capitalism, et al) or security of needs provided by the state (communism et al). None of those systems asks the necessary questions about what will happen in the future. If we spend resources now on a quest for unlimited growth and earnings, what will be left in 100 years, 200 years? If we spend resources now to ensure all members of society are taken care of now, will we have enough to take care of future members of society? These are questions about sustainability.

In 2002, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers revisited their 1972 book Limits to Growth to see if any progress had been made. The results were, as you may have guessed, disappointing. However, in the penultimate chapter, the authors present a scenario that they ran through their computer model (WORLD3) that achieves sustainability. What it calls for will not be easy to come by.

The scenario requires an effort to curb population growth through birth control and greater equality in rights among men and women of all nations, an increase in land yield, and the protection of agricultural land from industrialization and over-farming. This scenario caps the world population at a steady 8 billion with sustainability achieved on or about the year 2020.

LtG_scenario-9
2002, Meadows et al. Output of a chart generated by the WORLD3 computer model showing sustainability achieved by the year 2020.

While this was encouraging news in 2002, we have probably already missed our deadline and now must work hard to achieve an economic plan that we can maintain in perpetuity, one that will leave resources available for future generations while also meeting our current humanitarian needs in this generation.

On a global scale, we must adopt a way of thinking that leaves behind the need for growth, competition, and unlimited prosperity and replace that thinking with ideas that lead to sustainability, equitability, and stability.

 

References

  1. Meadows, Donella H. (2012). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. The Long Now Foundation (http://longnow.org)
  3. The Next Systems Project (http://thenextsystem.org)
  4. Donella Meadows Institute (http://www.donellameadows.org)